Middler Books and More

This blog contains Bruce DuBoff's book reviews, info on other media, and related topics. It is a collaboration between the librarian and both the students of Pennsauken Intermediate School and Phifer Middle School in Pennsauken, NJ, and the general middler book reading community. The books featured here are appropriate for grades 5-8, though not all books reviewed here are appropriate for all of those ages.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Draper, Sharon M. Out of My Mind. This book is appropriate for grades 4 and up, or ages 9 and up, depending on reading level. This is also an excellent high-low book (4 out of 4!).

I try to tailor my library instruction to suit the needs of every student, and I attempt to differentiate instruction when it is indicated. However, because of my time constraints as a librarian in two large buildings, I know that I fall short on the edges: gifted and special needs. In order to make library lessons relevant for patrons who may not be able to even read a spine label because of visual challenges, patrons who may be at a 2nd grade reading level but at an 8th grade interest level (or 8th graders reading at an 11th grade level), or patrons who I just do not understand because of their inability to express their needs to me, I have to make time-consuming accommodations to my lessons, and I confess that I do not always spend enough time on modifications. Sharon M. Draper seems to understand these types of constraints; if she is not a teacher, she sure knows how to sound like one. Ms. Draper’s new novel Out of My Mind, about a brilliant girl with cerebral palsy who cannot tell the world what she knows, has the authentic voice of someone who understands this issue firsthand; her daughter has cerebral palsy as well. Unsurprisingly, the protagonist’s mother in the novel is a strong advocate for her daughter’s rights, but she only gets in the faces of the bad people; she’s not a raving parent. I am glad that Ms. Draper wrote this obviously personal novel, because more people should reexamine their treatment of people with special needs; sometimes, as in Melody’s case, people can possess unexpected or unknown qualities that shine more brightly because of a disability.

Melody Brooks is almost eleven and she has never spoken a word. Although she is quite brilliant, with a photographic memory and synesthetic sensations that enable her to see colors when listening to music, cerebral palsy excludes her from many activities, including speech. Only in her dreams is Melody a “normal” 5th grader: “I get picked first on the playground for games. I can run so fast . . . I call my friends on the phone, and we talk for hours. I whisper secrets . . . When I wake up in the morning, it’s always sort of a letdown as reality hits me” (51). Melody is bored to tears in her self-contained classroom, but she cannot tell her teachers what she wants and needs, and most of them assume she is incapable of understanding, not simply incapable of communicating. When Melody ponders why her goldfish Ollie suddenly decides to jump out of his bowl, she is actually pondering her own condition: “Maybe he was sick and tired of that bowl . . . Maybe he just couldn’t take it anymore. I feel like that sometimes” (64). When Melody starts inclusion classes, she feels like an object of derision and mockery by her fellow, cold-hearted students. One student, Rose, befriends Melody, but they both learn the challenges and complications of friendship with Melody because of her requirements for intimate assistance in activities most folks take for granted, like eating and using the bathroom, severely curtailing their potential friendship. When Melody investigates ways to allow her to speak à la her hero Stephen Hawking, a whole new world may open up to her. But that world contains problems far more dangerous than the boredom or occasional prejudice she faces currently.

Sharon M. Draper has crafted a superior novel out of the trials of a young woman without a voice to liberate her. Like much of her other fiction focusing on African-American youth, often burdened with the same yoke as Melody— but caused by society, not genetics—Ms. Draper bestows an authentic and engaging voice upon the voiceless, forcing the rest of America to listen to what was previously unheard and potentially distasteful. Ms. Draper’s use of imagery to paint the scene; i.e. when Melody hilariously/tragically describes her self-contained classroom, brings even more life to characters already bubbling under the surface with energy, tension, frustration, and confusion. Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper transcends issues like target age or audience, so I will recommend this morality play to just about everyone I see. It taught me to reexamine my approach to my special education students, and I think it has something to teach to everyone about the way they treat and think about other people with significant differences.

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Dionne, Erin. The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet. This book is appropriate for grades 5 to 8, or ages 10 to 14, depending on reading level (3 stars out of 4).

I don’t know how often in past columns I have addressed the issue of “girl” books and “boy” books and if ever the twain can meet, but reading Erin Dionne’s new novel made me ponder the topic. My 5th through 7th grade female students liked Ms. Dionne’s last novel, Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, so I was eager to read the new one, The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet. Reading Hamlet prompted some confusion on my part because of an obvious shortcoming about which I can do nothing: I am a guy. Although I am able to overlook my gender through almost all of the books I read and review, there are certain books that just don’t cross the girl-boy barrier well. Twilight is a perfect example. Through most of the novel, I said to myself, “Please, Bella, will you just stop whining for a minute?!” However, when I expressed this sentiment to some of my female colleagues, they looked at me in astonishment. I was told that I simply didn’t understand, that it’s a girl thing. If that is true, that certain books cannot be understood easily by guys, then I predict overwhelmingly female support for Ms. Dionne’s new novel featuring a girl who feels that she has a lot to whine about.

Hamlet Kennedy has survived until 8th grade by staying under the radar. It’s her sister Desdemona, the seven-year-old child prodigy super-genius, and her kooky parents, the Shakespearean scholars who dress up in Elizabethan tights and velvet cloaks, who enjoy and savor the limelight. Despite her unusual name, Hamlet wants nothing more than to survive her last year of middle school without embarrassing herself to death. However, her life takes a drastic turn when Dezzie (Desdemona’s nickname) starts taking art and music classes at Howard Hoffer Middle School. Drama increases for Hamlet when the mean girls Saber and Mauri befriend Desdemona so they can extract text and project information from her, and Hamlet cannot seem to prevent her sister from being used. Two more complications raise Hamlet’s tension level. First of all, her best friend Ty may like “like” her, which is a bit gross to Hamlet. Secondly, and more significantly, she discovers that she has an ironic and disturbing talent for reading and acting Shakespeare that may shine a very unwanted and unwelcome spotlight on her: “I hated Shakespeare. He was responsible for ruining my life. And as far as I was concerned, being able to read his words was no gift. It was just another thing that made me different—what I wanted to avoid at all costs” (94). Hamlet must find a way to address the rising waters in her life that want to drown her in a torrent that feels more complicated and hopeless than the Bard’s play that bears her name.

As a former 12th-grade British Lit teacher who taught Hamlet for years, there are several elements of The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne that I like. I enjoy how occasionally Hamlet will set the scene for the reader in her mind, a clever device that sheds light onto her thinking process and forwards the narrative. Also, my English teacher side cannot fail to appreciate Ms. Dionne’s numerous Shakespearean quotes and references, especially now that I am old enough to “get” them. However, there are times during this novel when the action slows down too much because of Hamlet’s insecurities and fears and it gets a little boring. Clearly, when it comes to primal girl angst, it’s just like ballet to me: I can watch it, I can understand what it is, I can appreciate its process, but I just don’t get it. Ms. Dionne’s book is not poorly written, but I feel a little excluded from its secrets. I surmise and hope readers will respond to Hamlet much like they respond to Twilight’s Bella, with empathy and understanding, not scorn and annoyance. I think it’s a safe guess that I will not get many male readers for The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet by Erin Dionne, but I have been wrong about that type of thing before, and I do have quite a few male readers of Stephenie Meyer. My greatest wish for this novel is that it normalizes Shakespeare for future readers with a little comedy and a little tragedy.

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